The gardens at Eltham Palace in south east London are registered Grade II* on the Historic Gardens register. But Head Gardener Jane Cordingley questions the title 'historic garden'. "It is certainly a garden in an historic landscape, and the skeleton of the 1930s garden is of immense significance; but, because of the war, there was little time to develop the planting. The owners, Mr & Mrs Courtauld, commissioned designs in 1935 but left in 1944, so much of the planting remained a vision."
Jane Cordingley sees her task as realising that vision. Because of its new incarnation as a publicly owned garden, it must be capable of management in a sustainable way. The Courtaulds were millionaires and employed 11 gardeners, so the concept of sustainability was irrelevant. Gardens of that period owed more to the personality of their creators.
Today the garden must respond to visitor expectations; it must reflect the interiors of the palace and thus the personality and standards of its creators. At the same time it must take into account climate change and the limitation of modern gardening budgets. These differing realities demand a very different sort of garden management than would have been necessary in the 1930s when the garden was originally created.
The gardens sit uneasily with the palace itself. Whereas the 1930's house, which was built within the older royal palace is self-confident and stylish, the Courtaulds were beginners when it came to gardening. They probably relied heavily on their designers - famous Arts and Crafts landscape architect, Thomas Mawson, and the palace architects Seeley & Paget. Their friends included many notable horticulturists including John Gilmour, Assistant Curator at Kew.
The gardens are typical of many gardens of the early 20th century, and include a series of features such as a vast rock garden and rose gardens, whose main function was the display of certain groups of horticultural plants to the highest standards of the time. The Courtaulds' garden was intended to be a collector's garden rather than being led by a distinct design style. If anything the garden was backward-looking, leaning more towards the English Arts and Crafts style, rather than the sophisticated assurance of the Art Deco interiors. The garden did not form a setting or a backdrop for the Palace. It was allowed to be itself.
Mr Courtauld was a keen historian and undoubtedly respected the historic significance of his new property. The palace, after a major restoration by English Heritage, was opened formally in 1999 and hailed as a 'bravura performance' by columnist Simon Jenkins. By contrast, little was left of the 1930s garden, apart from the framework and some important trees. The brief given to the Head Gardener was to restore the garden in such a way that the gardens 'reflected and enhanced the interior of the palace'.
Like most Head Gardeners today, Jane was faced with a Herculean task when she assumed the rôle in 2001, with staff turnover running at 100% and the restoration of the gardens still largely incomplete. Not only did she face the usual skills shortage but the reality of an expensive urban environment which was not only unaffordable but also unattractive to any gardener whose skills were sufficient to get a job in the country.
In response to this challenge Jane has selected her staff on the basis of their adaptability and above all, availability, hoping that this would provide some much-needed continuity. With a staff of just two, Jane solved the labour shortage by developing and refining a policy of her predecessor: a volunteer army of 'spaders and snippers' each term reflecting a distinct role in garden making and keeping. These volunteers were an essential element in the development of the gardens. Without them the project would have, put simply, bogged down in the heavy clay soils and rising water tables of the garden.
Her organisation and encouragement of her team are an example to all in the sector. Jane managed the volunteers so that both the gardens and volunteers gained something they valued in return for their investment of time, finding niches which responded to individual agendas. A promotional structure enabled the mixture of the recently-retired, career-changers and Employment Service trainees to flourish and gain confidence in an environment which valued effort and the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Many have gained recognised horticultural qualifications 'on the job' and many of those who have left are now in permanent jobs as a result of their experience.
After four years, although many have moved on, she has been able to retain a nucleus of reasonably experienced unpaid staff. Not only is all the plant propagation undertaken by volunteers in the well-organized glasshouses, but also about 70% of the bedding is still planted out by volunteers, as is some of the dead heading. Another of the end results has been a community involvement with the gardens that was probably unique in the area.
"This last year I've had to retrench a lot, because there are areas of my remit which are not being met to the extent that I should like. All the 'spaders' have now left, and I cannot recruit and train any replacements until the problem of finding senior staff is solved. It is important not to overspend on supervision and training at the expense of meeting the needs of the developing garden and its presentation. It is fortuitous that most of the historic core features have been double-dug, and we have contractors who can continue with this."
Jane still faces the task of recreating and sustaining a 1930s garden without a 1930s size staff. Part of her management strategy is now to simplify the cultivation and husbandry in as many areas as possible without compromising historical integrity. The plants and planting styles have now to take into account the reality of both skills levels and labour shortage.
The plant associations have to be more sustainable than would have been the case seventy years ago. Sustainability in historic garden restoration has also to take account of another, altogether more challenging, threat - climate change. Rainfall patterns are changing, precisely as predicted in the 2002 RHS / National Trust report, and gardens in the south east seem to be the first to suffer. Essential traditional border plants, such as delphinium and phlox, will dry up in summer and rot off in winter unless the border soils are deeply dug on a regular basis and protected from damage. Growing these vulnerable plants to traditional standards is probably one of the greatest challenges facing head gardeners in historic gardens.
After four years in the job, Jane Cordingley sees a task that has just begun, but she is already achieving much thanks to garden and team management practices which are enabling her to achieve the vision of a sustainable garden in an era when costs and climate are often working against her. But meeting today's challenges has to become part of the craft of those gardeners who create and sustain our historic gardens. And it is the rôle of the modern head gardener to deliver - not only to today's spectators, but to those of the future, not forgetting the many and varied individuals who commit time and sweat to a project they believe in.
Further information on Eltham Palace at www.english-heritage.org.uk/elthampalace/